THE BODY AGAINST THE METALS OF OPPRESSION
In Studies in Iconology, Erwin Panofsky tells us that to understand a painting, we must delve into it by degrees, departing from its primary or natural significations (forms), passing through its secondary or conventional significations (images or combination of images) until we reach its intrinsic significations or content (underlying principles that reveal its base mentality). Curiously, for Panofsky, the primary level corresponds to form, and immanent content only fully emerges in its third and final level.
From Cesare Ripa’s Iconology (1593) to Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology (1939), we evolved from descriptive study of images and symbols to interpretation of these very symbols and images’ meanings in order to extract a philosophy, a world view, from them. The course, however, was that of iconography, which Panofsky defines as a branch of art history related to the works’ theme or meaning, in opposition to its form, to iconology (“an elaborating iconography”, in Nicos Hadjinicolau’s words), where we reached semeiology, which has signs and the functioning of signifying systems as its object.
If, referring to Panofsky, we can speak of an “autogenesis of contents”, of the dynamic of iconographic themes, when dealing with Heinrich Wolfflin, who in his Principles of Art History seeks to define the plastic-visual phenomenon’s specificity, we can speak of an “autogenesis of forms.”
It is not my purpose here to exhaustively discuss these two erudite art historians’ ideas, but, rather, to recover some points that may be useful for our analysis. From the former, for example, the idea that we must delve into a work by various degrees in order to understand it. But these levels’ order of importance depends on each author: for Panofsky, the goal is content; for Wolfflin, form. As for me, I intend to highlight thematic and stylistic, as well as formal, questions. In part, because at certain points in Amaral’s work, such as during his latest phase, form disputes themes for primacy of the surface, which is to say that it is also theme. Or image.
Thus, I would not like to approach Antonio Henrique Amaral’s works with a battery of theories, seeing it as only an illustration for these theories. I must not forget that he is, above all, a representative of the old vocation of painting which has an over forty-thousand-year living tradition. And as a painter, he has almost always been conspicuously figurative, with clearly delineated thematic lines which, in my view, are inseparable.
THE THEMATIC QUESTION
Themes: A Pretext?
Udo Kulterman states in his book L’Hyperréalisme (1972) that “in all periods of art history, what is painted or sculpted has been as important as the painter or sculptor’s manner. The themes are speakers in and of themselves; they express something.” We can go further and state that each period reveals a preference for certain themes (Pop Art = mass culture), just as there is a strict correspondence between certain means of expression and themes, such as in engraving, for example.
Artists, however, react to the labeling of their works with this or that tendency or the affirmation that they create thematic paintings.
In a statement given to Olivio Tavares de Araujo in 1986, Amaral declares that “theme or topic is deeply transitory and secondary to painting.” I find two observations fitting here. He made this declaration at a point when his painting was characterized by great thematic dispersion, which coincides with the freeing of forces of his unconscious and of his very creative impulse. But his painting does not end there — his current phase restores themes and increases his control over form. A second observation: the painter, in fact, dispenses with a theme in order to exercise the painting’s potential, but a good theme will undoubtedly be more than a simple pretext for executing a good painting, and it will always be an important way to access the artist’s universe.
Generals and Mouths
Before introducing the banana theme and definitively becoming a painter, Antonio Henrique Amaral approached other themes, in addition to experimenting with other means of expression.
In engraving, he began with linoleum, a technique traditionally placed at the service of participatory art. In “Casal” (“Couple”, 1958) [p. 37], he submitted the human figure to expressive cuts that resulted in the discontinuity of lines and masses. His first woodcuts appeared in 1959 and Amaral used this technique until 1967.
During this initial phase, of gropings and a search for his own language, he stressed two themes: generals and mouths. It was a speaking and discursive phase, marked by visual “verbosity,” nearing the poster and political pamphlet. “My work became frankly descriptive after 1964. I insisted on almost becoming a pamphleteer,” he would later confess. In his images, the grimace approaches barbarity and political primitiveness. The generals’ tongues were enveloped with a paraphernalia of wires (“A mesma língua”, “The Same Tongue”, 1967 [p. 38]), truncating dialogue between the military and civilians, between the United States and Brazil (“Diálogo frustrado”, “Frustrated Dialogue”, 1967 [p. 38]). Brain washing: the populace impassively watched the bombardment of slogans that constituted military and anti-Communist rhetoric (“A grande mensagem”, “The Great Message”, 1966 [p. 38]).
In 1967, Amaral published the album O meu e o seu (Mine and Yours) with seven colored woodcuts, in which problems were turned inward. Or rather, socio-political questions were being intimately revealed in all Brazilians, as if Amaral, speaking for us, were reacting to the introjection of military authoritarianism. Macrocephalic figures suggested that problems rise to the head and threaten to make it explode. The artist chose to speak, to state opinions, to raise his voice, to shout in our ear that “the world in which we live” was not going well and, thus, “we must do something.” Text and image were brought together in “Realidades e culpas” (“Realities and Guilts”), “Sem saída” (“No Way Out”) and “Um + um = dois” (“One + One = Two”) [p. 39], in order to reinforce the message.
Mouths were present in the artist’s first paintings in 1967. Forming a rosette or imprisoned within compartmentalized spaces, mouths made an infernal noise.
For almost a decade, beginning in 1968, Antonio Henrique Amaral explored this symbol-theme in numerous configurations and different contexts. The banana quickly imposed itself as a theme. But if it helped make his paintings popular, it eventually became an uncomfortable mark from which it was difficult for the artist to free himself. Finally, in- and outside the universe of art, Amaral became known as the painter of bananas. It is not strange, then, that of all of his painting’s symbol-themes, the only one that the artist has not taken up again in his current, self-referential phase is precisely the banana.
Bananas are an important item in world trade. Since politics is a consequence of economics, we must equally conclude that many countries’ stability depends upon them. Because they are a watery, easily-bruised and quickly-ripening fruit, the greatest problem in commercializing bananas was, for many years, transportation, which gave rise to “trading with neighbors,” that is, the United States bought them in Central America; Europe, in Africa and so forth. The introduction of refrigerated ships changed this commercial practice, but the so-called “good neighbor policy” remained as its inheritance.
For this very reason, the banana’s lack of prestige as a metaphor for human, existential or political behavior is surprising. The commonplace treatment given the banana is possibly due precisely to its excessive presence. Thus, we can say “the price of a banana,” that is, extremely cheap. The banana stands out as a crude, trivial thing, lending its name to a weak person with neither character nor energy. Throughout Latin America’s banana republics, we find misery, surrender, submission, apathy, underdevelopment and dependence.
No Brazilian artist had, until then, taken up the theme so courageously, approaching it deeply and systematically for so long. In fact, in spite of being considered a symbol of the tropical Brazilian state of mind, it rarely appeared in our paintings. It cannot be found among the fruits “registered” by Eckhout in his seventeenth-century Pernambucan landscapes nor did Debret feature it in his water colors documenting nineteenth century Brazilian life in Rio de Janeiro.
The banana only made its entrance into Brazilian art with Modernism, specifically in Anita Malfatti’s canvas “Tropical” (1917), and later in several canvases by Tarsila do Amaral, the muse of the Modernists. It appeared in two of her, and Brazilian Modernism’s, most influential works, “Abaporu” and “Antropofagia” (“Anthropophagy”, 1928 and 1929 respectively) — veritable post-cards of a conceptually assumed Brazilian primitiveness — and a short time later in works from her Pau-Brasil phase, such as “A feira” (“The Market”) and “Mamoeiro” (“The Papaya Tree”), both from 1925. Segall, who first visited Brazil in 1913, would make his first incursions into the theme in 1924 (Menino com lagartixas”, “Boy with Lizards”), beginning what critics would call his Brazilian phase, which reached its apogee with a work of great impact, “Bananal” (“Banana Grove”), in 1927.
This fruit practically disappeared from Brazilian painting between the thirties and the fifties, only to resurface in the late sixties with the emergence of Tropicalism in Amaral’s paintings, as well as in those by Glauco Rodrigues.
In 1968, Amaral moved to a country home in Atibaia in rural São Paulo state, where he raised chickens and painted for three years. The banana series was born there. How? The artist does not know how to explain it, but raises the hypothesis that the idea of painting them surfaced when he saw Oswald de Andrade’s play O Rei da Vela, directed by José Celso Martinez Corrêa, in the city of São Paulo. He was very impressed by the play’s mocking spirit, made explicit by the principal character’s gigantic phallus-banana, interpreted by Renato Borghi. In other words, it was tropicalism’s irreverence, irony and mordacity — rather than Atibaia’s rural environment — that suggested the theme to the author.
Nevertheless, there was a difference between Amaral and the other artists who used this theme which seems significant to me. While the others always showed the banana tree or grove, in essence insisting on the image of tropical Brazil, Amaral preferred to place the banana alone, occasionally in stalks or bunches, fleeing from the post-card to such an extent that he transformed it into a metaphor for the Brazilian and/or Latin American being. Thus, while the carnivalizing image of Brazil prevails in Glauco, in Amaral it is, above all, Brazilian life’s dark side and, therefore, a political symbol.
As I state in my book Artes plásticas: a crise da hora atual (Visual Arts: The Current Crisis, 1975), Tropicalism was not a movement in the traditional sense of the term — it did not have manifestos, guidelines, inaugural exhibitions, etc — but the explosion of Brazil’s political unconscious after several years of repression. It was a festival (“an Indian summer, in Antonio Candido’s words), that the dictatorship allowed until it could muster its forces to decree Institutional Act nº 5 on December 13, 1968, making torture official, removing congressional representatives from office, imposing censorship and the end of habeas corpus.
In one of the texts printed in the catalogue of Amaral’s 1976 Mexico City Museum of Modern Art exhibition, I described his painting as a total encirclement of the theme, as much in its external aspect, with under and overlying socio’ political and cultural implications, as in the internal, reaching what the artist himself defined as a plunge into the banana’s soul/mud (alma/lama).
His evermore perfect pictorial treatment of the banana, as well as his canvases’ increasingly gigantic proportions, reestablished that symbol-fruit’s importance in Brazilian and Latin American reality. Reconquering its prestige, the banana underwent a surprising metamorphosis, with frequent analogies to the body. When confronted with ropes, forks, knives, it suggested multiple political implications.
The first icon of this theme-phase (“Boa vizinhança”, “Good Neighborhood”, 1968 [p. 42]) is almost a political poster; we see a banana linking the American and Brazilian flags, our progr/Esso stanched by the multinationals’ action. As we have already seen, the concept of the good neighbor policy, of creating areas of influence which led the to becoming economic, political and cultural satellites, originated with the banana economy. In this setting, we saw the imminence of the clash between the colonizer and the colonized, between the rich North and the miserable South, of a clash between centers of cultural emission and countries that import international guidelines and models.
The banana phase, which lasted until 1975, basically consists of two sequential series. In the first, which can be encompassed by the title “Brasiliana” (1963-1973), we have a true festival of bananas, or as the popular saying goes, “bananas to give away and to sell,” bananas in bunches, stalks, bananas that are green, ripe, rotten.
Repression and his first symbol — the rope that binds and hangs (“Detalhe com corda”, “Detail with Rope”, 1972 [p. 107]) — arose powerfully in his first presentation of reaction. Immobilized, unable to resist, the banana would be sliced and perforated by the metals of repression. A chill cut through our medulla. Everything took place in the foreground, as in close-ups of terror. First, the penetrated body, then, the ripped-off skin, forks destroying the victim within. This was his second phase, “Campos de batalha” (“Battlefields”), begun in 1973, whose principle developments occurred in the United States where the artist, having won the Travel Prize in the First National Salon of Modern Art the previous year, had went. At this point, the banana could be found rotten, bound, gagged. “Bruises” covered its entire “body.” The banana’s contact with sophisticated technology accentuated the organic material’s internal waste
In the first subphase, “Brasiliana”, greens and yellows dominated, giving his painting a luminous, solar characteristic. The daring of the cuts and framing indicated his will to overcome Naturalism’s snares. Changes in colors with the entrance of grays and blacks, the lowering of tones, coincided with the darkest period of political repression in Brazil. The banana abandoned its natural habitat and, now alone, began to frequent the confined spaces of repression and torture.
After having spent almost three years in the United States, the “A morte no sábado” (“Death on Saturday”) series (1975-1976) marked Amaral’s dramatic reencounter with Brazilian reality. It was an homage to the journalist Wladimir Herzog, who, after having been brutally tortured in the grip of repression in São Paulo, was found hanged in a simulated suicide that convinced no one. In the first of the series’ four canvases, repression’s trophy emerged: forks lifted the body which had been reduced to a heap of bloody meat. Herzog’s murder, on October 25, 1975, became a watershed, increasing the nation’s consciousness of the situation’s gravity and indicating the first internal divisions within the dictatorial power structure.
While in New York, in 1979, Antonio Henrique Amaral attended Antunes Filho’s beautiful theatrical version of Mario de Andrade’s text Macunaima, o herói sem nenhum caráter (Macunaima, The Hero with No Character), originally published in 1928. Born in the Amazonian rain forest, with the region’s exuberance and myths and legends as his crib, Macunaima had to invent a thousand tricks and pranks to survive in a country like Brazil. In order to recover the muiraquitã (an amulet that he had sold to Venceslau Pietro Petra, devourer of people and symbol of imperialist capitalism), he abandoned the forest and wandered about the country. In his travels, his character’s incoherences and weaknesses were revealed. In spite of his cunning, which also took him to Europe, he ended up losing his roots and, when he returned to the jungle, tired of struggling, he was different, a deraciné. The theatrical version had a great impact on Amaral, who, reflecting on being Brazilian, elaborated a text which he titled Macunaima morreu, minha gente (My People, Macunaima Has Died). In his interpretation, Macunaima was the Brazilian anti-hero. A rogue and scoundrel, irresponsible, impulsive, uncaring, deceitful and lazy, he sold his mother and father, killed his brother, became a Latin American dictator, gave up his soul and his country for a little money and booze. And, thus, he was more animal than man, with no social conscience, collectively incapable of deciding his very own destiny or that of the country.
Three years earlier, in 1976, after returning from his first trip to the United States, Amaral carried out a series of five canvases that he called “A casa de Macunaima” (“Macunaima’s Home”), which should be understood as the flip side of his bitter, pessimistic 1979 text. Or rather, in this series, what he showed was only the characterless hero’s original home, the rain forest. What he showed were Macunaima’s cultural roots, that natural, savage, virgin, untouched Brazil. Only the thorns symbolically reminded us of the other Brazil, that of the dictatorship, in which violence was still prevalent in the political and social sphere, as the title of one of his 1975 canvases indicates, “No verde, no amarelo, espinhos” (“In the Green, in the Yellow, Thorns”). It was the moment for his work’s second great thematic metamorphosis: a forest exploded within a banana. The passage from “Campos de batalha” (“Battlefields”) to the forest took place in two canvases, “O metais e as vísceras I” (“Metals and Viscera”, 1975) [p. 47] and “No metálico, as janelas” (“In the Metallic, Windows”, 1976) [p. 138], the latter in a somewhat surrealistic, almost nocturnal atmosphere, with absorbing blues. These were suddenly substituted by intense greens, by sharp and aggressive forms, by the entangled vegetation which grows monumentally in “A casa de Macunaima II” (“Macunaima’s Home II”, 1976) [p. 141]. The previous red of the viscera was, from that point on, the yellow-green of the rain forest, the body became dense vegetation, impenetrable jungle, thorns replaced forks. Who knows? Perhaps in Amaral’s works, the characterless hero was, in truth, the banana.
Bamboo in Expansion
A 1976 canvas, “Detalhe da folha” (“Detail of the Leaf”) [p. 142], announced his bamboo phase. The thorn was still there, among the greens and yellows, colors almost occupying the canvas’ entire extension in a chromatic synthesis nearing abstraction. Bamboo thus arose as an evolution of the “Macunaima’s Home” series. In the midst of tropical vegetation, the image of bamboo is imposing: strong, elegant and virile, ready to substitute both “Battlefield’s” lusterless colors and the visceralness of “Death on Saturday” in the new edifice-Brazil. The first bamboo subphase extended from 1976 to 1980. The theme reappeared in 1983 (“Bambuzal”, “Bamboo Thicket” [p. 149]) and again after 1988.
We know that, for Orientals, bamboo represents human rectitude. For us, it indicates constant growth, strength of character, maturity. Viewing the question from this angle, bamboo would be among the banana’s antitheses, since the latter is seen as crude, valueless, characterless, with little resistance to outside pressure.
In his canvases, bamboo was shown isolatedly at times, in the center; at others, surrounded by barbed wire, which substituted thorns. Or it formed a barrier of greens and yellow, occupying the canvas’ entire extension.
Contrary to bananas, almost always horizontal, prostrated and mutilated, bamboo, always whole, imposed itself through its elegance and strength as a symbol of ascending and constructive forces. This architectonic connotation has been reasserted in recent, post-1988 works in which, transformed into columns or poles, it bolsters marquees, elevates planes, table tops, etc.
But just as with other symbol-themes, bamboo has gone through successive semantic metamorphoses. It has been made into a candle, wick, dynamite and, most recently, polluting smoke stacks. At times it has been inflated (“Personagem”, “Personality”, 1978) or perforated, also threatening to explode. Like the banana, it had undergone a process of eroticization, appearing beside vaginas, lips (“Na paisagem, bambu”, “In the Landscape, Bamboo”, 1980 [p. 48]), rumps and buttocks: bambuttocks. Or “buttomel, buttolis, buttohue, buttamour, buttolaw, buttallure, buttanil, buttobread, buttocks of a thousand types, pluributtocks,” as Carlos Drummond de Andrade said in his recently published erotic poems, in which the poet ecstatically sang the joys of carnal love, which he called natural love.
The Erotic Urb
The eighties were distinguished the world over, including in Brazil, by an extraordinary revitalization of painting. After almost two decades of an excessively hermetic (conceptual art) and aseptic (minimalist reductionism) art, painting regained its central place in the visual arts. New savage German Neo-Expressionists, Italian Trans-Vanguardians, American New Imagists, the Eighties Generation in Brazil, throughout the world, artists once more began experimenting with painting as a space for pleasure and reflection. In their pictorial voluptuousness, artists dominated all of the graffiti, the East’s and West’s decorative standards, second and third generation images created by the mass media and high technology — from wall paper to publicity, from the comics to movies, from television to the computer. Ugly (bad painting), energetic, neo-informal, eclectic, post-modern, painting reigned absolute, sending objects and installations into the corner. Painting in the eighties liberated gesture and color, broadened scale, reencountered the wall, the billboard, the highway, the body itself, mixing itself with the populace in marches and protests, all in the name of emotion, of expressive urgency and of a communicability that had been lost with the help of a closed and authoritarian critical discourse.
Amaral has always believed in painting. He did not need to get on the band wagon. He simply continued painting, but he responded to the avalanche of new painters with an exuberant, vital and sensual painting.
Between 1982 and 1987, he neither systematically tied himself to nor developed any particular theme. He revised his formal thematic vocabulary, recycling older symbols, introducing others, promoting fusions (“Banseiodade”, “Bambreastcity”, 1986). Now, in fact, his themes were a pretext for exercising painting’s vocational and linguistic possibilities to the maximum — color, material, texture, gesture. What fundamentally changed was his freedom in dealing with specifically pictorial questions, from which arose a sensualization of the act of painting.
Amaral is not, nor has ever been, a naturalist painter. An essentially urban artist who grew up and developed his work in two of the planet’s great metropolises — São Paulo and New York — his “landscapes” are mental constructions, elaborated in his studio, based on symbols and signs. Intellectual and fantastic creations, they are not subjected to the genre’s traditional rules and subdivisions — urban or rural landscapes, seascapes, etc. One of his canvases, for example, is called “Pastoral urbana” (“Urban Pastorale”, 1979) [p. 50] and in it we can simultaneously see girders and bulbous roots, straight lines and curves; we could almost say, the city and the countryside. In his imprecise and improbable “landscapes,” geometric solids cut through space like shooting stars and space ships (“Cidade”, “City”, 1984 [p. 51]), while shellfish, snails, small mollusks and slugs crawl on the ground (“Paisagem”, “Landscape”, 1983 [p. 173]).
Some “landscapes” such as “Díptico” (“Diptych”, 1985), “Azul no 20 20 de novembro” (“Blue Sky on November 20”) [p. 190], “Céu azul e mar” (“Blue Sky and Sea”), “Opus I/86” [p. 52] and “Opus II/86”, all from 1986, were subjected to extreme movement, as if a strong wind, a hurricane à la Tintoretto, were blustering against all of the natural and mechanical objects found within them — buildings, urban equipment, trees, columns — disfiguring them until they are transformed into tachismes in a quasi-informalism. As he has confessed, Amaral could become an abstract expressionist, but he feared that total freedom of gesture and color could be as dangerous as total control of form.
This de-construction of the images has its correspondence in a rapid and nervous calligraphy that abruptly emerged in his canvases (“Correio marítimo”, “Maritime Mail”, and “Casal”, “Couple” [p. 91], both from 1986), as if he had reclaimed the climate of his 1966 water colors and gouaches (“Mulheres e bacantes”, “Women and Bacchantes”, and “Mulheres e suas máscaras”, “Women and Their Masks” [p. 52]).
But his informalism was only a pause. Returning to his “post-apocalyptic landscapes,” we see buildings projected dramatically on the horizon, inclined like phallus-cannons (“Visita de Maína”, “Maína’s Visit”, 1985 [p. 180]), or mimicking organic forms (“Construformas”, “Construforms”, 1985 [p. 170]). Everything has been mixed: human beings and ex-votos, fruit and mechanical objects, mollusks and robots, the static and the dynamic, solids and liquids, nature and culture.
Breasts sprout from the earth, creating thousands of minuscule embryonic forms (“Seio e formas”, “Breast and Forms”, 1985 [p. 63]), like in biblical manna. Mutant forms in permanent metamorphosis arise: houses-elephants (“Casanimal”, “Housanimal”, 1985), mountains-breasts, sea-breasts (“Mar e terra”, “Sea and Land”, 1984 [p. 178]), bodies-fruit (“Figura”, “Figure”, 1983 [p. 171]). “Selva” (“Jungle”)’s teats (1968) [p. 10] were multiplied in a new landscape, navigating in open sea like a school of breasts (“Navegante”, “Seafarers”, 1984 [p. 27]). They are the laden teats of the government. An erotic current energizes everything. Eroti/city. The breast’s mythomagical presence in urban space once again makes fertilization myths contemporary and replaces the city in its uterine and maternal dimension, as defended by Mumford, the great historian of cities.
In the visual banquet into which Amaral’s painting was transformed in the eighties, fruit fulfills an important role. It helps compose the laden, tropical table. Abandoning the banana, he adopted the clumsy watermelon, the armorial Mexican fruit, perhaps in homage to two of Latin America’s greatest painters, Rufino Tamayo and Frida Kahlo The latter made a passionate love song to life and to her native country out of the sandía. “Viva la Vida y el Dr. Farril” she said on a Mexican flag jabbed into a watermelon’s body. Tamayo dealt only with the theme as color and material.
Apples, pears and other unidentifiable fruits came later. Upon introducing the apple into his paintings, Amaral recovered his erotic dimension, its meaning as a vehicle of feminine sensuality. His apples were body and fruit, thighs and projectiles (“Banquete”, “Banquet”, 1986).
The Amazon: The Battle
The Amazon is no longer a question of interest to only Brazilians. As seen during the June 1992 world conference on the environment sponsored by the United Nations in Rio de Janeiro, there are still tremendous divergences about the region’s economic and political aspects.
Amaral’s concern with the theme began in 1976, with the “Macunaima’s Home” series. If we consider other of his paintings’ themes, we can assert that, as an artist, he has always been concerned with environmental questions. This posture has been forcefully reasserted in his current phase, begun in 1989, when his painting recovered its power of denunciation.
Today, with information reaching us by satellite, fax or television, we need not be physically present in the Amazon to confirm the deforestation, the burnings, the predatory exploitation of the region’s natural and mineral resources or the rubber-tappers’ struggles led by Chico Mendes. Substituting direct experience with reflection, Amaral faces the Amazon as a sign, a point of departure for reflection about human destiny on the eve of the twenty-first century.
In order to ponder this supersign, he has created three more signs: the tree, the chain saw and fire. Acting symmetrically, he counterpoises the forest to the city, whose confrontation is also shown through three other signs: the rope, the building and industrial pollution. This is the scenario, the new battlefield. The war is going to begin anew with much more experienced armies and weapons with much greater destructive power.
In medieval painting, nature assumed the form of a symbol and each fragment of a painting, Max Friedlaender reminds us, was an autonomous entity. Following the same logic, the idea of the tree included within it the presence of birds, just as to prove the clearness of the river’s waters, we had to it with fish.
In his second Amazonian phase, Amaral acts a little like a medieval painter, reducing the forest to a tree sign carried to the canvas in its simplest structure, with the economy of a logotype. Some trunks and roots are red, as if the fires destroying our forests were reaching the earth’s greatest depths, just as yesterday’s knives perforated the banana. These are now substituted by vigorous tree trunks, in a metaphor for destruction and the struggle against economic and technological power. Viscera and ashes. The ropes that once enveloped bananas now pressure the trees in an evermore insupportable encirclement (“One of Them”, 1989 [p. 197]). In one of this phase’s most moving works, “Incêndio da floresta amazônica” (“Fire in the Amazon Forest”, 1989 [p. 53]), fire envelops the forest with baroque flurries; flames are transformed into gigantic waves (like Hokusai’s famous engraving), threatening to devour everything in their path, making the very margins of the painting bleed. In a short time, trees are reduced to charcoal; toxic clouds cover the sky; the heat is unbearable; the air, unbreathable. In the landscape, we now see only trees’ skeletons, as if they were ghosts (“Smoke & Clouds”, 1991 [p. 56]).
But these criminal burnings and fires are not the only threat to the forest’s integrity. Chain saws penetrate the canvases on the left and right (“Ameaça”, “Threat”, 1990 and “Árvore: a ameaça”, “Tree: the threat”, 1991 [p. 201]), their toothed blades now touch the trees’ bark in images of pure ecological terror. A chill once again cuts through our medulla. A shout frozen in the air. Metals and fire: terror paralyzes and burns the woodlands without pity, in the name of progress and accelerated consumption, easy profits, destructive modernization.
These recent works’ power of denunciation has been significantly broadened in that Amaral links this systematic destruction of our forest reserves to industrial pollution. In the metropolises, other jungles, built of cement and steel, are also growing immeasurably. Smoke stacks sprout from the tops of factories; inside buildings, sharp knives and thorns (“Greens & Smoke II”, 1991 [p. 210). On the left-hand side of “Paisagem I” (“Landscape I”, 1991) [p. 208], clouds of fire grow frighteningly; on the right, the stone jungle expands. The medieval garden, metaphor of paradise, has been transformed in the large city into a metaphor of hell. The order has been inverted: the city threatens the forest (which would be paradise today). A diagonal cuts “Greens & Smoke I” (1991) [p. 30] from one extreme to the other: half pollution, half buildings and factories. Unbreathable air, oppressive cubicles. The machine-city, with its motors running permanently, cannot stop; it does not cease producing useless things. Up and down, incessantly (“Smoke Up & Down”, 1991). Interior of forests, interior of buildings. There is no visible exit. The fetish-date 1984 has been surpassed. Blade Runner is there. It is not tomorrow, but today. The panorama drawn by Robert Kurz in his apocalyptic The Collapse of Modernization (1991) is frightening. The Berlin Wall has fallen and “barracks socialism” has ended, but misery and depression increase in the First World’s capitals. The crisis advances. We are now living the “era of darkness” in both statist and free market societies.
The force of Amaral’s latest images, which have an unquestionable impact, bring to mind a certain religious, medieval and baroque iconography, and the same pathos as that of Spanish art, dense and gloomy.
In a 1989 “Natureza morta” (“Still Life”) [p. 194], forks and knives dramatically placed over a red plate create an image that trips our memory’s trigger: The Sacred Heart of Jesus, crown of thorns. “Árvore” (“Tree”, 1991) [p. 77] clearly shows how cities in uncontrolled expansion are besieging and destroying the forest. The image of sacrifice is obvious; trees, now fragmented, are raised up like the Host over the multitude of knives and chain saws (and the Eucharist is no more than a metaphor for anthropophagous ritual). “Paisagem II” (“Landscape II”, 1991) [p. 57] is Golgotha, the place of torture and the most atrocious suffering. Under the sky, menacing clouds; on the highway paved with gray tones, sacrificial altars are aligned. On each one of them, the symbols of terror: rope, knife, fork, fire, chain saw and thorn.
Signs in Rotation
Over three decades, Antonio Henrique Amaral has created approximately fifty symbols and signs. In permanent rotation, these symbols and signs gain new meanings due to the linking of phases and periods in his painting and the relationship of his work to the country’s, continent’s and world’s reality.
In his images’ ambivalence, the rope can either be holding a watery fruit (“Detalhe com corda”, “Detail with Rope”, 1972 [p. 107], and “Corda grande”, “Large Rope”, 1973 [p. 111]) or a suicide’s body. This association of rope to suicide has been reinforced in his current phase. In works such as “Inside/Outside II” (1991) [p. 74], the rope reappears as a negative symbol. It is made vertical inside buildings or over altar-buildings in which organic forms, that may well be human remains, are deposited. Portinari’s panel of Tiradentes in the Memorial to Latin America which shows the hero’s body — quartered after he had been hanged — now immediately comes to mind.
Nevertheless, the rope appears curling around bamboo, trees and knives, functioning as an internal frame, symmetrically dividing the canvas’ space, or linking itself to a nipple in the lower extremity in recent canvases. What can this image mean, in light of all the breast’s possible significations as a positive metaphor — protection, nourishment, comfort?
Knives have undergone the same semantic mutations. Initially introduced in “Battlefields” to signify political repression and economic power, they have been transformed into chain saws (“A ameaça: fase I”, “Menace, Phase I” and “A ameaça: fase II”, “Menace, Phase II”, both from 1990 [pp. 54-55]), placed in the service of deforestation, or, now “domesticated” and smaller in size (“Armas III”, “Weapons III”, 1992 [p. 207]), they appear in large numbers or beside fetish-objects, as if they were now participating in another ritual, closer to daily, urban life.
Since ending the banana phase, Amaral has become more and more self-referential. Each new painting finds an earlier reference in his own work. “Face with a Mind of Her Own” (1988) is an inventory of symbol-themes created by the artist, distributed about the canvas’ surface as a “broadened visual alphabet,” a species of imagistic-text. It is no coincidence that he includes them among the terms he has “dictionarized” to spell out his name, with his habitual calligraphy, as if wishing to say, “My themes are my signature. I am my own painter.” In the lower part of the canvas, Amaral composes with these symbols and signs, in Archimboldo’s fashion, what could be his self-portrait.
Miniaturized, these symbols are transformed into fetish-forms, into erotic souvenirs, into small trophies of amorous hunts, biographical objects kept in his own painting’s memory-cupboard. Gradually released from their original meanings, these symbols are being reduced to pure signs and, thus, can be manipulated as components of a plastic-visual structure, which gives his painting its semiotic nature (“Mind Meal”, 1989 [p. 58]).
The Role of Acriticism
In an interview given to Fernando C. Lemos, in 1976, Antonio Henrique Amaral ironically said that he placed his paintings only in the hands of the framemaker. “Labels,” he guaranteed, “have no meaning. The true artist and the criminal have something in common: the fear of being accused under an article of the law, even if it be an aesthetic trend. The delinquent’s ideal is to invent a crime which the law has not anticipated and to benefit from it, since it would be unpunishable.”
This police-style language is no accident. After all, society frequently treats the artist like an outcast or, at least, an anarchist. However, often asked to speak about his work, the artist offers false clues, misleads, feigns, eludes the answer. His attitude is more often to systematically deny influences, motivations, approaches, objects; ultimately, to deny the successive versions presented by critics about his work’s meaning. His tactic is to keep the art system from recuperating or banalizing his work.
And if the artists themselves are those who create the isms, criticism even more certainly cannot avoid labels, since its task is to historically situate artists’ work, to confront it with current production, to indicate each work’s social (contents) and formal genesis, seeking a logical link to successive phases.
In spite of having been a historic movement at the outset of this century, we can say that Expressionism is a permanent tendency in art history that resurfaces in times of crisis. Thus, through Expressionism, we seek sharp social participation or we plunge into a sometimes morbid and sick subjectivity. We must not forget, for example, that linoleum and woodcuts were the techniques most used by members of the Atelier Popular de Gravura (1937) — one of the branches of Mexican muralism, and, in Brazil, those of the Clube de Gravura de Porto Alegre (1950), which had the objective of putting art at the service of political catechism.
The accentuated deformation of figures appearing in Amaral’s first works (which remind us of fetuses or Spielberg’s ET) and the aggressive incisions, fragmenting the human body in his linoleums and woodcuts, clearly define these expressionist links. In his woodcuts from 1963 (“Diálogo”, “Dialogue”) to 1967 (“A grande mensagem”, “The Great Message”, 1966, and the 1967 series O meu e o seu, Mine and Yours), Amaral simultaneously carried out a violent political criticism and a plunge into his speculations of a psychoanalytical cast. It is worth saying that he acted at both of Expressionism’s extremes.
Stylistic reading’s second level is Realism. The artist himself, in 1975, referred to his images’ realism and, one year later, Damián Bayón would say that “Amaral has an impeccable technique within what we now call Hyper-Realism.” In 1976, commenting upon the “Battlefields” series’ “opaque, severe and monumental canvases,” he defined them as the manifestation of a “cold wrath.”
Speaking of literature, Jean Ricardou simply defines Realism as all artistic procedures attempting to furnish the spectator with the impression that he is in the presence of a type of manifestation of that which is real. Nevertheless, this impression is clearly always false, since the same author observed, “the relations linking the objects described (the narrative) are different from those uniting common objects.”
We must not forget, however, that Realism is contemporaneous with photography and both coincide with capitalism’s first symptoms of crisis. Courbet’s Realist Manifesto was published in 1855 at almost the same time the first photographs were being exhibited in international fairs. Though publicly assuming a position against photography, artists such as Delacroix, Ingres, Corot, Manet, Seurat, Cézanne, Munch and, ultimately, Courbet himself, secretly used them as the basis for their paintings.
Chantal Beret reminds us that Courbet exhibited canvases from 1848 to 1855 in the Salon which scandalized the public, critics and official media. There were workers, peasants, scenes from the daily lives of the people and of their customs in his paintings, focussed according to criteria of objectivity identified with photography. Thus, he was accused of painting as one would polish shoes. His critics argued that giving a stone layer the same value as a prince was unacceptable.
Yet Realism arises in Amaral’s work precisely with bananas, a perfectly banal theme, just as despicable as Courbet’s peasants. A theme, furthermore, with no tradition in Brazilian painting. In his first subphase, “Brasilianas”, Amaral adopted a photographic language of cuts, closeups and frames and the photograph continued as the basis for his work in “Battlefields” and subsequent phases. Nevertheless, Hyper-Realism is faced by him, before all else, as a work method and not exactly as a language, which is to say it is not, as for Americans, an attempt to freeze or distance social contradictions. On the contrary, he wants to emphasize these very contradictions and conflicts, using the metaphor of oppressive metals against underdeveloped bananas. Therefore, we are dealing with critical Hyper-Realism.
But if photography was originally used objectively in order to give realism and precision to images, Amaral then used it in order to free the fantasy that would flow into the forest which explodes within the bananas. It is a period rich in images. In the magma into which his painting were transformed, flowers bloom, volcanic forms emitting heat intrude and solid vapors are fragmented into crystals, meteors, meteorites, molecular geometries and particles that go on to mix with the bristles, boughs, leaves, tubercles and thorns. There will soon be no more distinction between vegetation and minerals, between metals and viscera, between forks and thorns, between the world of objectives things and the artist’s subjectivity, between reality and fantasy. Some “Battlefields” were already, in truth, internal landscapes, almost dreams.
Kandinsky saw a certain analogy between the creative process in art and the formation of the universe: a controlled succession of explosions. Amaral’s paintings between 1974 and 1983 would then be a metaphor for the creation of the universe. It is as if he wanted to capture the world in formation, to control its energies and, only then, construct a new reality.
But before excessive order is authoritarianly and imperially imposed, the curves begin to be felt, imploding arches and internal planes, eliminating or rounding out edges, thorns, angles, corners, straight lines and diagonals. Everything becomes rolling, undulating, bulbous, callypigian. This is Baroque’s triumphal entry into his work, with its erotic and sensual charge, with its spasms of intensity, excesses and anamorphoses.
A type of torture of form, the Baroque pathos resulted in violent torsions of the human body or of architectonic components, such as Bernini’s baldachin columns in Rome. In Amaral, Baroque torsion had already been suggested in “Corda grande” (“Large Rope”, 1973), but it became fully convincing only in the bluish and somewhat phantasmagoric column seen on the right in “Díptico” (“Diptych”, 1985).
Roundness reigns absolute. Themes, forms, materials, colors, everything seems to acquire that edible feeling of which the Colombian painter Fernando Botero spoke, when he said that his paintings “are only finished when they reach the edible state in which things become fruits.”
It is a moment of great accumulation of forms, abundant as a laden and well-set table, as a basket filled with fruit. A lush, vital, fertile, multiplying, erotic, at times debauched moment, with touches of humor reminding us of comic strips and feature-length cartoons (“Cidade entre céu e mar”, “City between the Sky and the Sea”, 1986). In this sense, beyond Baroque, his 1983-1987 works are also at times Tarsilian, Arpian, at times Mironian, Kleenian. Or rather, Baroque eventually flows into Surrealism.
Vibrant and warm pictorial material; brush marks, animated by intense gesticulation, left visible in the canvas. Emergence of pinks (carnations), blues and whites. Multiplication of fragments or allusion to fetishist details — small bones, cartilages, mouths, breasts, phalluses, vaginas, thighs and hearts in works like “Seio e formas” (“Breast and Forms”, 1985), “Mar e ar” (“Sea and Air”) and “Velocidade” (“Speed”) [p. 175], both from 1984, extend this pleasurable relationship with the body to the point of free and distracted exercise of form — color and material.
A series of anamorphic “still lifes” forms a small but important chapter in his work. Pears certainly go through the same process of eroticization as other objects; they are at the same time phallic and “buttalic.” And the intense, very artificial coloring of “Pêras” (“Pears”, 1985 [p. 63]) contributes decisively to its increase in erotic temperature. Languid, the pears execute a clumsy dance, as if they were Nolde’s dancers participating in a primitive ritual. Or then, as we can equally see in “Metais em rosa” (“Metals in Pink”) [p. 186] and “Frutas em branco” (“Fruits in White”) [p. 187] (both from 1985), it is as if they were painted with the mediation of a deforming mirror or even candle light, reminding us of projected shadows.
These are Mannerist works. Against the Renaissance’s objectivity and Classicism, Mannerists introduced a subjective note into painting, creating abstruse metaphors in order to capture the uncommon and the fantastic, which allowed them to approach contemporary sensitivity. “Fruits in White” has something to do with the Mannerists’ abysmal and labyrinthic aesthetic. It seems like the fruits are being liquified or sucked into the canvas, drained into a sewer; thus, they foreshadow a naked, white surface. Furthermore, this surprising work’s first strangeness is precisely the dominating white in an artist who makes abundant use of colors, which, along with the rough and somewhat brutal matter, ironically incurs on his previous work. The whites and pinks associated with the brush stroke’s naked sensuality substitute the bluish gray, the brilliance and smoothness of the metals that thus lose their aggressive nature.
Fruits and metals are elongated and distorted almost to the point of abstraction. Subjected to the bidimensionality of space, they are curved in a foreshortening. Spatially repressed, they attempt to escape, profoundly projecting themselves outward, or inward. The composition appears as if seen from above or from within, in flight. Tension between illusory depth and the canvas’ surface retains the objects’ materiality.
In 1970, Amaral said, “My previous phases — generals, bananas — were a reflection on the phenomena of repression. Now, I am interested in constructing an expression. I refuse to feel repressed. I made my opening; I preceded the government. In other words, before, worried about denouncing repression, I repressed my very own expression, the most objective side of the experience.”
In this process of freeing his unconscious, the artist’s reevaluation of his own illustrative activities — especially that segment consisting of doodlings, annotations or graphic daydreams made spontaneously and carefreely during a conversation on the telephone, in a bar, in any place or support, regardless of the time or the circumstance — was fundamental. In 1976, he began a series of paintings based on these registers and ten years later did sketches in a larger format.
Thus, upon releasing that repressed self, he reopened the surrealist variant, always latent in his work and quickly recognized by Brazilian and Latin American critics. In 1958, Geraldo Ferraz placed his woodcuts between “mechanicist Surrealism and an oneiric and fetishist remembrance” and, twenty-five years later, Sheila Leirner would still speak of a “deep plunge into the land of dreams,” while other critics compared his painting to that of Tarsila do Amaral, labeling it neo-anthropophagous. The Manifesto antropofágico (Anthropophagite Manifesto), written in 1928 by Oswald de Andrade, Tarsila’s husband, clearly show an absorption of Dadaist (Picabia cannibalism) and Surrealist (the unconscious’ role) ideas. In the diverse works from Tarsila’s anthropophagous phase (1928 and 1929), as well as in Amaral’s very recent “Paisagem emblemática” (“Emblematic Landscape”, 1992 [p. 66]), we have an oneiric vision of Brazilian space, the recovery of a pre-logical, mythomagical, savage Brazil in “direct communication with the earth.”
Referring to his first works, Amaral defined them in 1975 as a form of exorcising his internal ghosts. Later, he would say that you must let the energies originating in your unconscious regions flow. The critic Casimiro Xavier de Mendonça, alluding to sketches on small sheets of paper or in notebooks, spoke of “the unconscious’ graphic registers” and of “unconscious writing.” This obviously takes us back to André Breton, who, upon writing the first surrealist manifesto in 1924, characterized the movement as “pure psychic automatism” or “dictation of thought, lacking all control exercised by reason, excluding all aesthetic and moral concerns.” In subsequent texts, Breton further sustained that “the activity of transforming the world must not suspend or restrict the interpretation of the world in any way. This must, at all costs, remain autonomous.” From this, he recognized two fields of action within Surrealism, “one emphasizing the social, the other leaning toward the resolution of conflicts of a psychological nature.”
From the beginning, Amaral’s efforts have been to seek a balance between the objective and subjective fields of experience, between the political and the existential, between the external view and the plunge within. Or rather, his surrealist vane is not the same as that of Salvador Dali, approaching the pathological and politically reactionary, but rather that of Breton and Matta, equating “internal guerrilla war” to political liberation movements.
Our artist, therefore integrates the Latin American variant of Surrealism, like Matta, Lam, Botero, Gongora, Mário Toral and others. Distancing themselves from European matrices, they do not consider it a proposal for political alienation or escape. On the contrary, it has been a vehicle for going deeper into our reality, which is always surprising, chaotic, fantastic. Only insanity unites us, as García Márquez frequently says. Thus, for us, Surrealism has other names: Magical or Fantastical Realism. The latter was coined in 1943 by Alejo Carpentier. The Cuban writer criticized European Surrealism for attempting to bureaucratically and premeditatedly reach the fantastical through tricks of prestidigitation. It approaches the Baroque, reminding us that the Americas, “continent of symbioses, of mutations, of vibrations and miscegenation, has always been Baroque. And all symbiosis or miscegenation engenders something Baroque, which is Fantastical Realism.” And this is ours, as “we find it in the raw state, latent, omnipresent in all of Latin America. Here, the unique has always been commonplace.” Or as another Cuban, the painter Wifredo Lam customarily says, “We do not create the unique.”
Mexican historian Ida Rodrigues Prampolini’s posture is no different when she uses the expression fantastical art: “In Latin America, the way in which the artist or the writer approaches reality is multiple, contradictory, fabulous, mythical, imaginative, fantastical, but it is always real or traditional.”
In the Artist’s Studio
Antonio Henrique Amaral once heard Lívio Abramo say the following, “If you wait for life to calm down in order to start working, you will produce nothing. You have to learn to work in the midst of confusion.” I remembered this advice from a master of Brazilian and Latin American art to a young artist living through a moment of crisis when, preparing to write this text, I was able to accompany him for several hours while he executed a painting in his studio in Butantã, a district in the city of São Paulo I had often visited the artist in his studio, designed by one of Brazil’s best known architects, and during these visits I could always see some unfinished work on his easel, just as it was commonplace for him to be doodling on a piece of paper while we chatted.
But, now, this was the first time I had seen him in front of the canvas, brushes, paints, pallet knives, executing a work. The way he confronted the canvas, less anguished and epic than Iberê Camargo or without Ivan Serpa’s obsessive meticulousness, did not surprise me. What, in truth, did surprised me was the demystification of the creative process, the lack of an aura of mystery and suffering that we always imagine surround creation. The fact that working there, in front of me, he did not detach himself from his daily domestic and professional circumstances, from the universe of ideas, from everything that was taking place in post-Collor Brazil and the world, impressed me — and very much so his attitude, while working, was not withdrawn, silent or serene. Surrounded by modern society’s electrical-electronic paraphernalia — computer, fax, television, radio, tape recorder, telephone, etc., he did not isolate himself in an ivory tower. All the while painting, he went about making quick provisions and decisions concerning his family and career, giving orders, accelerating processes, setting appointments, making commitments. He listened, spoke and discussed without ceasing to place paint on the canvas.
Now, while writing this text, I think about how the small occurrences in everyday life have repercussions on his painting, on his choice of themes, on his formal solutions, on his mechanisms of creation and even on the names of his works. Art criticism tends to see the work as a finished product, without considering the phenomenology of the artist’s creation, the way he constructs his paintings, his studio’s architectonic characteristics, how he distributes the instruments with which he works or the finished or ongoing paintings in his space, whether he paints during the day or at night, listening to music or the news, with his wife or his dog at his side, etc. In the same manner, criticism does not always concern itself with knowing how facts outside the artist’s painting, outside his studio or his career, influence his creative work. I spoke about a theory of circumstances once in a polemical essay. And the first circumstance, the most immediate and encompassing, I said, was the studio — the moment of creation. And making the same inquiries about the art critic’s creative process, I wondered how one produced a critical text without the contaminations of affection or emotion, ideological or aesthetic affinities. Circumstances, I stated, quoting Lionello Venturi.
I think about all of these things at the very moment in which Amaral, after almost a decade working with great thematic and creative freedom, has now dramatically restricted his themes, submitting them once more to a rigid formal control. If on one hand, his power of denunciation has increased enormously, on the other, gesture and color are being contained within the limits of his new formal-thematic proposal.
This does not at all diminish interest in his current phase nor make it less significant. On the contrary, after an initial discomfort, caused by the conspicuous geometricization of his new canvases, which obliges him to place images within niches or cubicles, we are being emphatically enveloped by this radical visualness, which, instead of minimizing, makes the themes monumental and broadens their power of denunciation. In truth, in dealing with the Amazon, gigantism and grandiosity must be the norms. There, not only are the forest and the Rio Negro, the fires and the destruction, large. Amazonian utopias and failures are also large: the rubber cycle, the Madeira-Mamoré highway, the Duty Free Zone, the Jari Project, the Trans-Amazonian Highway and the Amazonas Theater. Only after perceiving this, can we begin to understand and like these new works.
In other times (after 1976), Amaral believed in the ability to transform reality. “We can intervene and change the course not only of our work, but also of the reality around us.” Ten years later, a little skeptical — or metaphysical — he said that “art does not seek solutions for human existence. I only deal with it. The great role of art in the world today is to directly contemplate humanity in its full gamut of contradictions, limitations and incoherences.”
Thus, the best posture when viewing such a rich and surprising work is to face nothing as being definitive, neither the critic’s interpretation nor the artist’s declarations. Nor is the artist always his work’s best interpreter, and the fact that he is the author does not qualify him to have the final say about it, in part, because — even for the artist — there are obscure parts in the work, difficult to decipher. Finally, he works not only in the sphere of the conscious and reason. As Klee has said, “Man cannot bear a state of consciousness for very long. He must take refuge in the unconscious, because it is there that the roots of his being live.” On the other hand, a work of art gains or loses meanings to the extent that it is related to occurrences external to it and to art history itself.
The Creative Process
Antonio Henrique Amaral has never doubted painting’s importance or expressive force, its capacity to awaken and promote reflection about the human condition or about the reality surrounding us, of being a vehicle for affirming individual freedom and a cultural sign.
Dominating visual rhetoric, he knows that, in order to have impact on and objectively communicate content, one must create distinct, clear, technically well-finished images, with precise timing and spatiality. All of these qualities have been visible in his paintings since very early on. The images he creates are convincing, in spite of being restless and disturbing. They have an almost tactile consistency.
Nevertheless, he arrived at this visual quality autodidactically or empirically — through trial and error — with a centralizing theme, the banana, as his guide. This caused his great-aunt Tarsila do Amaral to comment, not without a bit of irony, “Interesting, very interesting. You study painting by way of the banana.” He studies painting and, perhaps, Brazil itself.
But just as his themes and way of dealing with them have changed, his creative process has also changed, without breaking his work’s internal coherence.
The most radical change occurred in the eighties, when he decided to free his unconscious’ energies. This plunge into his self was simultaneously an internalization of the act of creation and a plunge into that which is specific in painting. In fact, with bananas, especially in his hyper-realist phase, it was as if the image were ready when placed on the canvas. Mentally, it already existed before he began the painting. Up until that moment, Amaral maintained the act of painting under absolute control. The image existed before the painting; the theme, before the form, as if the painting were only the illustration of an idea or of content. With his forests and expansions, he reduced external control over themes and forms, from which an increasing autonomy of the painting itself resulted. We should note that realization of the painting became lighter and freer; the painter followed his own impulses and let the painting create its own dynamic. Thus the process was inverted: before, the work was created from outside inwardly; now the painting is born in its interior and threatens to break its very limits in an almost uncontrollable expansion.
In November 1976, Amaral confessed that forms and colors began to escape through his fingers, that he was unable to control them, “as if another self wished to surface,” concluding that, from then on, his relationship with his work tools or with the painting “became less imperative, less fascist.” On that same occasion, he said that a painter’s maturation “requires a lot of muscular and visual exercise,” as if proposing to displace the creative process from the purely mental pole to another, corporeal, which also means approaching the view of the gesture. The act of painting thus gains a more compulsive character and the canvas’ surface is faced as a space for adventure, with the intervention of chance.
Under pressure from civil society, the military regime began a process of opening, though slow and gradual, and art was unable to remain outside of this process. At least Amaral did not, or rather, as we have seen, he had preceded the government, creating his own opening.
Amaral’s new posture nears Matta’s position who, defending not a form of politically-committed art but rather a “poetics of revolutions,” said that he could not divide himself between revolutionary and artist. For this notable artist, “if the revolution is a collective enterprise in the social sphere, it is also a process that must be confirmed within each individual,” concluding that “just as peoples free themselves in the struggle against political and economic oppression, individuals can also free themselves through struggle against their internal tyrants — hypocrisy and fear.”
Structure in Sight
As has always occurred in art history, a new phase asks not only for a specific reading, but also imposes a rereading of previous phases and periods. Thus, his current Amazonian phase reveals that, above and beyond themes, there has always been — concealed or openly — spatial fragmentation and compartmentalization in his painting.
We should remember that the human figure, in the naturalist treatment, does not exist in Amaral’s painting. What takes place is a process of anthropophagization and eroticization of natural objects. And they all end up composing the great metaphor of his art, which is the body in permanent struggle against the metals of repression. Thus, excepting the half-body figures of generals, what is left over are fragments and cuts — mouths, tongues, rumps, breasts, feet, hands, hearts. Amaral first de-composes in order to then re-compose the figure according specifically plastic needs. De-construction and re-construction. Thus, the cuts, closeups and framings to which he submits bananas, all the while showing a sensitivity influenced by the mass media, indicate a clear will of form in the artist, leading the philosopher and art critic Villem Flusser to observe that “being symbols, bananas are not a return to representative painting. They are post-abstract.”
Through Baroque, Arpian, Magrittian or Tarsilian torsions, Amaral exercises the body, that is, the form, almost to the point of ecstasy. And thus he creates these hybrids which inhabit his symbolic universe — phallus-buildings, earth-breasts, sea-breasts, body-fruits. But since, ultimately, these are all inventions — plastic metaphors similar to those created by poets, he needs to simultaneously create the involucre that will receive them, the structure that will sustain this symbolic universe.
With the help of straight lines, Amaral frames the canvas’ space in all directions — vertically, horizontally and diagonally. Like in Aloísio Magalhães’ “Cartemas”, he seeks the lines of strength in the images he creates and exhaustively repeats, making them monumental while, at the same time, accentuating that sensation of confinement of space imposed by the theme. Niches, cubicles, drawers, stairs, platforms and/or altars thus create an apocalyptic and frightening scenario The geometrization of space reaches its peak, disputing the theme for primacy of the surface.
In his book Point and Line to Plane Kandinsky shows that the basic (real) plane existed before the (virtual) plane. This is what receives the work’s content. It has two horizontal and two vertical lines, defined as hot or cold bisonances of repose. Thus, individual elements are introduced beforehand into a warmer or cooler atmosphere. The environment surrounding the basic plane also enters into play, exerting pressure. What is above gives the sensation of lightness, which in turn leads to a greater elevation of the internal (spiritual) quality, since release negates density. What is below provokes the contrary effects of condensation, gravitation and binding. The left-hand side of the basic plane increases the impression of greater lightness and freedom. Going to the left and above in order to go to what is free, it is a movement to that which is distant. To go to the right is a movement of return to place; it is linked to a certain fatigue and its goal is rest. In the former case, we have tension up to the sky, the left being tension into the distance; in the latter, there is tension to earth, the right being tension to place.
All these observations can be applied objectively to Amaral’s painting, a good example of which is the mural he realized in 1989 for the Palácio dos Bandeirantes [p. 198/199], the seat of the São Paulo state government, about the founding and growth of São Paulo. Due to its location, it is extremely horizontal (4.5 m x 16.0 m [14’9” x 52’6”]), which recommended a conventional narrative solution, like, for example, Clovis Graciano’s mural on Nove de Julho Avenue dealing with the same theme. Amaral skillfully compensated this extreme horizontalness with a division of space in vertical planes. Or rather, he verticalized the diverse “landscapes” illustrating the pioneers’ economic expansion and São Paulo’s integration into the Brazilian universe. The vertical planes are thus distributed symmetrically, around a strong visual center, represented by bamboo. Pairs are formed: rivers and cane fields, gold and coffee, the populating of the country’s different regions by “battalions of men from São Paulo going into the hinterlands” and smoke stacks growing in the frenzied capital and, finally, now in a more even distribution between profits and losses, the clash between city and jungle. Thus, horizontal asymmetry corresponds to vertical symmetry. The first three vertical planes (from the center to the margin) on the right accentuate this verticality: they go upward, are more tied to the surface’s bidimensionality. Those on the left accentuate the horizontal; they extend downward, distancing themselves from the surface, pulling the country within. Rivers, mountains and small communities internalize the country. On the contrary, coffee and cane fields are closer to the city and industry. This thematic-formal differentiation creates, in the same fashion, a differentiation of the panels’ internal rhythms, maintaining the spectator’s interest for a greater length of time.
These formal procedures in other works cannot always be immediately perceived, because, integrated into the exposition of themes, it is as if they disappear or are “annulled” in the entire work. They become more visible in his triptychs, with their internal and hyper-visible divisions in the current Amazonian phase, with subdivision of space suggesting confinement; it is, to a certain extent, the content of his painting, which is to say, form is also theme.
His bamboo phase’s constructive virtualities gain a new complement, which is an internal structure reminding us of a soccer field’s arch. It was introduced in “Pastoral urbana” (“Urban Pastorale”, 1978 [p. 50]), the large-scale canvas announcing the series of triptychs Amaral would do in the United States that same year, and it reappeared in works dated from 1980 to 1983 and in the 1981 panel in the form of a billboard that he did for the Highway Art project on the El Tigre-Ciudad Bolivar highway in Venezuela. Arches, planes and internal frames are like paintings-within-paintings, indicating a tectonic will. The painting is faced as space to be structured — divisions, center-margin relations, contrasting systolic and diastolic movements, expending and emerging forms (“Emergências”, “Emergences”; “Árvore”, “Tree”; “Verticais”, “Verticals”; “A caixa”, “The Box”; all from 1981), under construction (“Construformas”, “Construforms”, 1983 [p. 170]).
His expansions, begun in 1977 as a development of forests, are a meeting of geometric solids or of growing crystals. In his first expansions (“Expansão azul”, “Expansion in Blue” [p. 151]; “Expansão”, “Expansion” [p. 71]; both from 1977; “Bambu em expansão”, “Bamboo in Expansion”, 1978 [p. 49]), we have what could be called an explosion of the cubist building, splinters bursting out of the painting, as if they were going to strike the very spectator, or, instead, tension between a strong center (bamboo as a column) and the margin. But his expansions quickly gained the status of sign of the city in disordered growth (jungles of stones), with the amassing of buildings in a megalopolis like São Paulo as a reference. This sign can both be opposed to the forest’s green and be identified with the cities’ pollution from fires that systematically occur in the Amazon. On the other hand, the sign’s simple directioning with the visual structure can provoke semantic displacements. In “Inside & Outside III” (1991), crystallographic expansion occupies the canvas’ center, with a polluting smoke stack as the background. In “Paisagem I” (“Landscape I”, 1991) it appears on the right, outwardly oriented, in symmetric opposition to the fires’ red smoke, equally oriented outwardly. In “Árvore” (“Tree”, 1991), expansion of the city to the left and to the right, both outwardly directed, clearly indicates that, with the forest sacrificed, cities will take its place. But in “Inside & Outside II” (1991) [p. 74], the two signs (the cities’ expansion and pollution) are inwardly oriented, further pressuring the central image (ropes and buildings), increasing the sensation of suffocation and spatial confinement, which announces the inevitability of death.
Critical, Resistant, A Latin American Artist
Brazilian, undoubtedly, Antonio Henrique Amaral is nevertheless seen, and evermore frequently, as a Latin American artist. His growing international prestige — in the United State, Europe and, more recently, Japan — unquestionably arises from his status as a Latin American artist, or to be more precise, as being a representative of Latin America’s fantastical art.
One of the greatest living painters in Latin America, he travels with absolute naturalness and competence in the continent’s cultural atmosphere. He absorbs several of Latin American art’s best characteristics in his paintings, but without losing his individuality, which is strong and original. A resistant artist, he has never submitted to international fads or Euro-American models and guidelines, even when living outside Brazil. From Hyper-Realism, for example, he availed himself only of the working methodology, using a photograph as its basis, but maintained the enraged tone, though with a cool language. He created his own, unmistakable critical and resistant iconography through which he expresses Brazilian and Latin American reality. He has dealt with regional questions having international impact and universal validity, such as political assassination, deforestation of the Amazon, industrial pollution.
And upon plunging into our reality’s contradictions, he has brought to the surface that which, in it, is ambiguous, unique and fantastical, that exciting mixture of Baroque and sensuality, of insanity and creativity, of tropicalness and delicacy. Upon capturing and expressing these “explosive floating morphologies,” this embryonic world, ultimately, this unstable and modifying space, he is creating, along with other of the region’s great painters, a metaphor for the continent’s very reality. This is what I state in my book Artes Plásticas na América Latina: do transe ao transitório (Visual Arts in Latin America: from the Crisis to the Transitory, 1979), upon finding in work by Xul Solar, Matta, Wifredo Lam, Tarsila, Tamayo and Amaral, among others, a space that is modified at each instant, a space characterized by indefinitions that silently explodes within the canvas, floating splinters, undecided whether to remain aloft or to break the painting’s visual limits. A space in which we do not know whether we should plunge or take off in flight, a space, ultimately, that has much to do with Latin America’s very mental and cultural reality, incapable of longer flights (out of underdevelopment) and planting its feet on the ground (not having plans, projects and theories).
I. Many of the concepts and ideas developed in this essay were previously presented or drafted in the following books, essays and catalogs: 1) “De la iconologia a la materiologia. Las posibilidades de un arte de resistencia en América Latina,” in La iconografia en el arte contemporáneo, Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma de México, 1982, pp. 83-102; 2) Artes plásticas: a crise da hora atual, Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Paz e Terra, 1975; 3) Artes plásticas na América Latina: do transe ao transitório, Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Civilização Brasileira, 1979; 4) “O painel do Morumbi,” unpublished text, 1989; 5) Gosto deste cheiro de pintura, catalogue of the exhibition 3/4: Grandes Formatos, Centro Empresarial Rio, 1983, pp. 7-18; 6) Introduction, exhibition catalogue, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, 1976; 7) Introduction, exhibition catalogue, Galeria Bonfiglioli, São Paulo, 1983; and 8) Introduction, exhibition catalogue, Elite Fine Art Gallery, Miami, 1989.
II. Antonio Henrique Amaral’s depositions were gathered in the catalogues of exhibitions held in the Galeria Bonfiglioli, 1976-1979; Galeria São Paulo, 1985; Galeria Montesanti, São Paulo, 1986; Salão de Arte Contemporânea de Campinas, 1975; and in the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Campinas, 1986.
III. Other authors and works cited:
1. Andrade, Carlos Drummond, O amor natural, Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Record, 1992.
2. Bayón, Damián, presentation catalogue, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, 1976.
3. Beret, Chantal, “Les illusiónes réalistes,” Art Press, no 4, May-June 1973.
4. Carpentier, Alejo, Ensayos, Havana: Ed. Letras Cubanas.
5. Gullar, Ferreira, introduction, O meu e o seu, São Paulo: private publisher, 1967.
6. Ferraz, Geraldo, O Estado de S. Paulo, August 10, 1964.
7. Kandinsky, Wassili, Punto y linea frente al plano, Buenos Aires: Editorial Nueva Visión, 1959.
8. Kulterman, Udo, L’Hyperréalisme, Paris: Ed. Chine, 1973.
9. Kurz, Robert, O colapso da modernização, Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Paz e Terra, 1992.
10. Lemos, Fernando C., “Antonio Henrique Amaral: nova aventura de cores e formas, Folha de S. Paulo, Nov. 11, 1976.
11. Leirner, Sheila, Arte como medida, São Paulo: Ed. Perspectiva, 1982.
12. Matta, Roberto, La guerrilla interior, Museo de Arte Moderno, Bogotá, 1975.
13. Mendonça, Casimiro Xavier, Revista Veja, Nov. 28, 1979.
14. Panofsky, Erwin, Essais d’Iconologie, Paris: Gallimard, 1967.
15. Prampolini, Ida Rodrigues, El surrealismo y el arte fantástico de México, Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1969.
16. Ricardou, Jean, “Contre le Réalisme: la description,” Art Press, no 4, May-June 1973.
17. Wolfflin, H., Principes Fondamentaux de l’Histoire de l’Art, Paris: Ed. Plon, 1952.